Being sober for many years did not protect Suzanne Harrington when she became disconnected from her support structure due to pandemic restrictions. She writes about the shame of relapse and how she got back on track
This January, I would have been 15 years sober. In 2006, after 24 years of drinking addictively, I crawled — metaphorically — into a meeting of recovering alcoholics, got with the abstinence-based recovery programme, and never looked back.
As the days and weeks turned into months and years, life turned from isolated black and white to connected full colour, so that the idea of ever drinking again seemed preposterous.
I loved my sober life and all of its rewards, from a profound peace of mind and sense of useful purpose to deep and lasting recovery friendships. Learning to trust myself and others. Watching my kids thrive. Reconnecting with old friends. Being trusted as a godparent. Getting a book published. Becoming a grown-up. Becoming content.
But this January, instead of collecting my 15-year sobriety chip — those little metal discs handed out in meetings to celebrate periods of recovery — I am instead coming back from a relapse that limped on during several months of lockdown. After almost 15 years of not drinking, I drank. Secretly, alone. Nobody knew. I made sure of that.
Outside of my immediate recovery community, they still don’t, which is why I’m writing this. There’s so much shame associated with relapsing, alongside the fear that drinking again can be fatal. And while I did not die, either of shame or liver failure or falling down the stairs, this does not diminish just how head-wrecking and isolating a relapse can be.
It’s not like you can pretend — especially to yourself — that you don’t know what your alcoholism is, how it works, and where it will take you. Dredging up such levels of denial is, like alcoholism itself, soul destroying. So why drink? Why relapse? Why risk losing everything gained in long-term recovery?
In a word — disconnection. A survey of over 52,000 people on behalf of UK charity Action on Addiction showed a 39% relapse rate during lockdown.
So when face-to-face recovery meetings temporarily disappeared at the beginning of the pandemic (when we were all too worried to cross the road, as well as being urged not to cross any roads under almost any circumstances), the vital support structures of recovery changed. They went online.
Recovering alcoholics with a psychological glass half full were delighted and relieved to still be able to digitally connect with their peers; turns out I was not one of them.
I did not adapt to online meetings. I was not one of those alcoholics excited about going to Zoom meetings in Brooklyn or Auckland or Timbuktu — I just wanted my home group.
Face to familiar face, not in Brady Bunch grids on my laptop. Lockdown felt weird enough without losing the recovery connection as well.
Instead of persevering and reframing online meetings in my head as the recovery lifelines that they are, I opted out.
At the same time, other support structures changed. My sponsor and closest recovery friends began shielding and didn’t feel comfortable meeting even outdoors, as they were protecting vulnerable loved ones. Fair enough. None of us had lived through a pandemic before.
But instead of reaching out to others, I disconnected even more. I’d be fine. I would not be one of those I’d heard sharing in meetings who had stopped connecting with their fellow alcoholics, stopped working their programme, stopped going to meetings, and sooner or later relapsed.
Of course I wouldn’t, not after so many years of being sober. Until I was. Time means nothing in sobriety — all that counts is connection.
“The drink is always there waiting,” writes Douglas Stuart in his 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain. “Doesn’t matter if you walk or run away from it, it’s still just right behind you, like a shadow. The trick is not to forget.”
I forgot. Longevity in sobriety had made me complacent. Despite having seen and heard the dangers of drifting away via the relapses of others, I still drifted away. I’d be fine.
Another factor may have been the weight loss surgery I’d undergone a year previously; I didn’t always realise I was hungry until my blood sugar — and resistance — was already low. A basic recovery acronym is HALT, that you are more susceptible to a drink when you are feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.
The link between bariatric surgery and increased alcohol consumption is confirmed in multiple studies. The combination of isolation, disconnection and low blood sugar in an alcoholic provides a perfect relapse storm.
One day, out of nowhere, a combination of these factors meant that I picked up a small can of fancy IPA off a supermarket shelf, and drank it in a single gulp. It was delicious, went straight to my head, and wore off almost as quickly. Crikey, whispered my alcoholism. That was fun. Let’s do that again. But let’s not tell anyone, so as not to worry them. It can be our own little secret.
That’s what alcoholism sounds like — it reassures you, cajoles you, convinces you, and shouts at you through a megaphone, in your own voice, that drinking is a good idea. Have another one. But shhhhh. Let’s keep this to ourselves.
I was very careful — for careful read ‘sneaky’ — waiting until late at night, carefully disposing of empties, and never risking screwing up so that anyone would notice. My kids, now 17 and 20, have never seen me drinking, never mind drunk. I wasn’t about to change that.
Luckily, thanks to weight loss surgery, my physical capacity for alcohol was diminished, but given the progressive nature of alcoholism, my secret little drinkies-for-one sessions were becoming more regular, with my guard slowly, subtly dropping.
It ended not by me being arrested naked in Tesco or setting the house on fire — I had never been a park bench drunk, never fully succumbed to external chaos — but by my daughter saying to me one morning how she’d come home late the night before and saw me horizontal on the sofa. “Gosh, mum, you must have been really tired,” she said. “You were dead to the world.”
I had not been asleep, but passed out. The horror of my kids realising their alcoholic parent was drinking again was enough to get me back into recovery that very day. The relief felt like sliding into a hot bath after months spent locked out in the cold.
Face-to-face meetings were up and running again, and I quickly found a new sponsor, with whom I have daily contact, daily accountability.
My recovery now feels like it has been switched from faulty dial-up to superfast fibreoptic — the peace of mind and sense of connection returned almost instantly, along with a wilting sense of relief.
It really is about connection, and altruism, we all help each other in recovery so that we may all hang onto our own recovery. Psychologist Bruce Alexander, in his infamous Rat Park experiment, built two rat environments; one where rats were totally isolated, with access to psychoactive drugs, and the other where they were in a kind of rat heaven, with access to each other, activities, as well as the drugs. The isolated rats all overdosed, while the sociable rats ignored the drugs.
Writer Johann Hari in his book on addiction, Chasing The Scream, cites this experiment as proof that in humans as well as rats, addiction is not about the drugs, it’s about the cage.
While clearly an oversimplification — humans are not rats — the baseline of lockdown isolation means that everyone, not just problem drinkers, have been drinking more as a coping strategy. In this newspaper in April, I wrote about strategies for alcoholics — by the summer I was sneaking lonely drinks. If you have never drank problematically, you may wonder what’s the big deal.
Nobody died, nobody got cirrhosis. No, I just got quietly pissed on my own in secret over the course of several months. Nothing terrible happened.
Externally, that is. Internally, alcoholism sneaks up on you, twisting your thinking into obsession, eroding your honesty, your integrity. Choking you in denial, turning you into a liar that lies to yourself. As the photographer Diane Arbus said, nothing is easier than self-deceit. And recovery becomes a lonely game of snakes and ladders if you disconnect from it.
Weirdly, I’m glad I experienced relapse. It confirms just how much I need to remain close to my peers; and that coming back from relapse is not only possible, but joyful.
I am not the only alcoholic to have relapsed in 2020, and not the only one who has come back.
The feelings that we share are gratitude, relief and more relief. Nothing sobers you up as effectively as a relapse.
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